Can you eat a plant-based diet and still perform as a top level athlete? Yes. Many of the world’s best athletes are switching to a plant-based diet, as I’ve done for the last five years.
As outlined in the last issue, I actually got faster and healthier when I changed my diet and even became the World Champion for 24-hour racing (yep, you race your mountain bike for 24 hours straight without stopping or sleeping). Now I want to provide some practical tips and address questions that most athletes have about changing their diet. Even if you don’t identify as an athlete, these questions may still be on your mind.
What if I don’t get enough protein?
How much protein do we actually need? Brenda Davis in her book Becoming Vegan says that athletes need 1.3-1.7 g/kg body weight of protein per day. That is easily achievable by eating whole grains and legumes, and you can add in products like tempeh, tofu, and seitan if you don’t want beans every meal. Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org recommends three servings of legumes per day: “Beans are packed with fibre, folate, and phytates, which may help reduce the risk of stroke, depression, and colon cancer.”
Do I need to combine foods in order to get a “complete protein?”
No, the concept of a complete protein is a myth. It was popularized in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Jeff Novick, MS, RD says in his article on the Forks Over Knives website: “Today, if you calculate the amount of each essential amino acid provided by unprocessed plant foods, you will find that any single whole natural plant food or any combination of them, if eaten as one’s sole source of calories for a day would provide all of the essential amino acids and not just the minimum requirements but far more than the recommended requirements.”
Some foods are naturally higher in amino acids, but the body pools them throughout the day. If you want a solid foundation, add in more quinoa, chia, and soy.
I changed my diet but I feel tired.
Worry not! One of the biggest challenges for athletes eating a plant-based diet is caloric intake. Plant-based foods in general have lower calorie density than animal products, so bonus—you can eat more! Their higher volume also makes you feel full. Increase your caloric intake by considering calories per pound and add in nutrient-rich calories like nuts, seeds, and avocado.
What supplements do I need to take?
A B-12 supplement is definitely needed with a plant-based diet. Also, if you don’t eat iodized table salt, you may need an iodine supplement or more sea vegetables like kelp and wakame. Vitamin D is also a recommended supplement for anyone for its cancer fighting properties. As an endurance athlete, I also supplement with Beta-Alanine, which is converted to Carnosine, a good acid buffer.
Do I still need to take fish oil?
Fish oils provide Omega-3s. Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) is a plant Omega-3 from walnuts, hemp, chia, flax, and even leafy greens in small quantities. The body needs to convert ALA into the biologically active forms of Omega-3s, EPA and DHA, but it is not very efficient. Where does the Omega-3 in fish oil come from? The micro-algae that little fish eat (whom the big fish then eat). A DHA supplement is recommended, as is eating foods already high in ALA so your body can convert it to EPA and DHA.
What about iron?
Iron deficiency isn’t just a concern for people who don’t eat meat. In general, it is recommended that endurance athletes monitor their iron levels with blood tests to assess if supplementation is necessary. Generally, if you are eating multiple servings of legumes, grains, and nuts, you are likely getting enough iron in your diet. Plant-based diets only have non-heme iron whereas diets with animal protein have both heme and non-heme iron. Non-heme is harder to absorb so include foods with Vitamin C, which helps with absorption.
If you’re thinking about going plant-based and worried it might negatively impact you as an athlete, think again! You’ll find positive benefits to both your health and performance. If you’re looking for more information or want to see what I do as a professional athlete, connect with me on Instagram (@looneysonya) or my “Plant-Powered Tribe with Sonya Looney” Facebook Group. Everyone is welcome!
Sonya Looney is a World Champion Mountain Biker and a podcaster, speaker, and expert in the fields of plant-based nutrition, mindset, and adventure travel. Through taking on the world’s hardest mountain bike challenges, Sonya applies lessons learned from the trail to everyday life to inspire personal growth and a positive headspace. Learn more about Sonya: sonyalooney.com
Article was published in The Good Life magazine.